Friday, July 31, 2015

Friday Filmography: Introduction

To understand my view of movies and television shows, you have to know a little bit about my background. I was the youngest in a family with five kids, and the only girl. That means I’ve grown up watching a little bit of just about everything – classic films, action, sci-fi, fantasy, musicals, BBC drama, mystery shows, paranormal shows, romcom, comedy, animated, western, horror… Like I said, a bit of everything. Saturdays watching westerns with my Dad, late-nights watching chick-flicks with Mom, and parent-free evenings watching action and sci-fi with my brothers.

From the time I was born, I was exposed to black-and-white films – a privilege most of my peers didn’t have. Of course that means most of my friends have no clue what I’m talking about when I start going on about Barbara Stanwyck and Kim Novak, or Fred MacMurray and Donald O’Connor. But if anything, the fact that they’re underappreciated makes me love classic films even more. From WWII war films to screwball comedies, classic films alone are a nearly inexhaustible genre and quite possibly my favorite genre.

But as much as I like classic movies, I would generally choose to watch a TV show over a movie, not because my attention span is too short, and I prefer short episodes to a full-length film. The exact opposite actually. I prefer to fall in love with a TV series and make friends of the characters so I can go back over and over, for episodes and episodes, and maybe even seasons and seasons...unless it’s canceled mid-season (Firefly fans, you know what I’m talking about). Often a movie feels like too much too fast to me, and when it’s done, it’s done…unless it’s a Marvel movie. In which case, it’s NEVER done…that’s not a complaint. Add to that the fact that I’m a book reader and I’m almost guaranteed to hate any movie based on a book I read first and loved, and maybe you can see why I lean toward TV shows.

That doesn’t change the fact that I like a broad range of films and shows, from Lord of the Rings to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off to My Fair Lady. So in this section of my blog, you’re likely to see, yes, a little bit of everything. I may not post here every Friday, but I’d like to have the freedom to if I get the itch. There may be movie reviews, movie posters, fan art, quotes, and my usual randomness. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun.
What are some of your favorite films and shows? Anything I might want to check out? I’m always looking for suggestions.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Quotes and Comments From The Land Of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe & Prince Caspian

I have never read the entire series of The Chronicles of Narnia. I read all but two of them when I was about 8 years old, and sick in bed with the flu. But it is definitely time for me to pay closer attention to them now that I’m older, and even more importantly, now that I share Lewis’ faith. Reading them the first time was fun, but the religious connotations never meant anything to me. Well they certainly do now.
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was where I started, and it was an amazing read, coming at it with new eyes. There were a few passages that really stood out to me.
The first thing I noticed was just a few pages in. Lewis’ constant reminders throughout the beginning of the book that it is very foolish to close yourself in a wardrobe, makes me think he really understood children. He knew it was exactly the sort of thing many of us were likely to do after reading his story, and soft-hearted godfather that he was, didn’t want any mishaps assigned to his account. I thought that was adorable. Maybe because I was one of those children.
But more specifically there were several quotes I tried to keep track of as I read.
“…Lu is right,” said Susan. “I don’t want to go a step further and I wish we’d never come. But I think we must try to do something…”
Susan was a favorite character of mine. I understand she’s not exactly a role model because of her fear, but that was what grabbed me about her. Yes, she was full of fear, but she didn’t let it completely control her. I saw it perfectly pictured in this quote. “Yes, I’m terrified, but we have to do the right thing.” She made a choice. And she chose to do right.
At the name of Aslan each one of the children felt something jump in its inside. Edmund felt a sensation of mysterious horror. Peter felt suddenly brave and adventurous. Susan felt as if some delicious smell or some delightful strain of music had just floated by her. And Lucy got the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realize that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of summer.
“Aslan is a lion – the Lion, the great Lion.”
“Ooh!” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver; “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”
“The he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
As for Aslan himself, the Beavers and the children didn’t know what to do or say when they saw him. People who have not been in Narnia sometimes think that a thing cannot be good and terrible at the same time. If the children had ever thought so, they were cured of it now. For when they tried to look at Aslan’s face they just caught a glimpse of the golden mane and the great royal, solemn, overwhelming eyes; and then they found they couldn’t look at him and went all trembly.
I loved Lewis’ descriptions of Aslan. He certainly had a balanced view of God. Terrible and good, merciful and just, “a consuming fire” and all love – they are not mutually exclusive.
“You must use the bow only in great need,” [Father Christmas] said, “for I do not mean you to fight in the battle… Lucy, Eve’s Daughter,…the dagger is to defend yourself at great need. For you also are not to be in the battle.”
“Why, sir?” said Lucy. “I think – I don’t know – but I think I could be brave enough.”
“That is not the point,” he said. “But battles are ugly when women fight.”
I didn’t feel like they were being told not to fight at all. But that they had a place, a battlefield of their own, and their own tasks to fulfill in a different sphere than the soldiers. Everyone has a place of their own, their own fight, their own battlefield. And sometimes we’re barred from the battlefields we would most like to fight on, but there is always a fight more suited to us.
I have to admit, I didn’t enjoy Prince Caspian nearly as much. It felt like it took a terribly long time for terribly little to happen. It was interesting enough to get me through it, but after The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe it just didn’t feel as impressive. But even then there were a few things that grabbed my attention.
“Aslan,” said Lucy, “you’re bigger.”
“That is because you are older, little one,” answered he.
“Not because you are?”
“I am not. But every year you grow, you will find me bigger.”
It is not him that changes, but us.
Susan, after ignoring Lucy’s insistences that she had seen and spoken to Aslan, and realizing Lucy was right: “…I’ve been far worse than you know. I really believed it was him – he, I mean – yesterday…And I really believed it was him tonight, when you woke us up. I mean, deep down inside. Or I could have, if I’d let myself. But I just wanted to get out of the woods and – and – oh, I don’t know. And whatever am I to say to him?”
“Perhaps you won’t need to say much,” suggested Lucy.
Then, after an awful pause, the deep voice said, “Susan”. Susan made no answer but the others thought she was crying. “You have listened to fears, child,” said Aslan. “Come, let me breathe on you. Forget them. Are you brave again?”
“A little, Aslan,” said Susan.
Susan let her fear control her. Ashamed, she can hardly stand to face Aslan. And yet Aslan speaks to her gently, and even gives her his blessing and courage.
And finally a quote that just made me laugh:
The sort of History that was taught in Narnia under Miraz’s rule was duller than the truest History you ever read and less true than the most exciting adventure story.
I’ve had less reading time than I would like this month to put towards The Narnia Reading Challenge (I’m sorry, Carrie! I’m trying!). But hopefully next week I’ll have more to share from my journey through Narnia.


Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Made You Up by Francesca Zappia

I saw this title advertised on Goodreads, and it caught my eye mostly because of the cover art. When I read the summary it sounded intriguing, but it wasn’t until I looked through the reader reviews that I decided to give it a try. Made You Up uses a writing mechanism I had never read before – something known as the unreliable narrator. So I suppose you could say I read this book as much for the technique as for the story. Here is the summary, as presented on Amazon.

Reality, it turns out, is often not what you perceive it to be—sometimes, there really is someone out to get you. For fans of Silver Linings Playbook and Liar, this thought-provoking debut tells the story of Alex, a high school senior—and the ultimate unreliable narrator—unable to tell the difference between real life and delusion.

Alex fights a daily battle to figure out what is real and what is not. Armed with a take-no-prisoners attitude, her camera, a Magic 8 Ball, and her only ally (her little sister), Alex wages a war against her schizophrenia, determined to stay sane long enough to get into college. She's pretty optimistic about her chances until she runs into Miles. Didn't she imagine him? Before she knows it, Alex is making friends, going to parties, falling in love, and experiencing all the usual rites of passage for teenagers. But Alex is used to being crazy. She's not prepared for normal. Can she trust herself? Can we trust her?

It ended up being a fairly typical high school setting, with the misfits pitted against the popular kids, jocks and cheerleaders – the same as seventy-five percent of all YA literature. But while the setting was typical, the main character and her story were not.

The unreliable narrator is a writing mechanism, where the reader is never entirely sure what is real and what is not. Alex’s paranoid schizophrenia was the perfect catalyst for this, as she’s never entirely sure whether what she’s seeing is real or a hallucination, whether her paranoia is based in facts and real danger or in her mental disorder.

I picked it up for the writing mechanism and stayed for the story. As Alex tries to go through her senior year as normally as possible, everything colludes against her. From a python in the ceiling tiles, to a principal that worships the school’s scoreboard, to an English teacher more like a drill sergeant, she’s left wondering whether she’s constantly hallucinating or is reality really that unreal? It might sound obnoxious, to never be completely sure of what you’re reading, but it was actually handled really well, and ended up being more like a mystery than a trip into Wonderland. A mystery I never completely solved until the end – always a bonus. I hate figuring everything out way ahead of time.

She bonds with a group of students that volunteer to run the gym for all the school’s sporting events, and for the first time she has real friends. Friends that she works with to solve the mystery of the bizarre happenings at their school. And one of them may be more than a friend.

Miles was the typical YA love-interest that I’ve read over. And over. And over. Dark, brooding, and mysterious. Is there no other style of love-interest? It’s getting just a hair cliché. And I’m getting more than a hair annoyed. But he wasn’t as bad as some I’ve read. The little mafia-style ‘jobs’ that students pay him to do were a fun angle, as was his interest in words, history, and learning.

There wasn’t much language, but there was your required make-out scene that every YA novel seems to have. The twists and turns and little mysteries of the plot kept it interesting and enjoyable, but really it was just a fun one-time read. Overall, after finishing it, it was rather forgettable. I didn’t even remember the heroine’s name when I sat down to write this. For YA enthusiasts, this would be one to add to the to-read list, simply for how interesting the plot is while you’re reading it. But if YA lit isn’t really your thing, I wouldn’t bother.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Manic Monday VI

Book Turnover: Rather like The Circle of Life, books come in and books go out. But more always coming in than going out. This week there was a little bit of both. My father was clearing out some his classics, and I picked up quite of few of them. Dispersing his leftovers reminded me I needed to do a check-through, and yes, sadly, a few went out. Donated, and sold though, so maybe they’ll find new homes.

Basting Spray: I have a love-hate relationship with sewing – when it goes well, I love it, and when everything goes wrong I hate it. My last everything-went-wrong project was a rag quilt. You may have seen them on Pinterest, as they’re very popular right now. They’re supposed to be one of the simplest quilts to make. But I decided to get clever. I used a soft, slippery fabric for the backs of the squares and no matter how much I pinned it, the layers shifted. User error? Probably. Frustrating to the point of tears? Definitely. The problem? I already had the squares for another one already cut and ready to go. Enter a miraculous washable fabric adhesive called basting spray. I’ve never used it, never even heard of it until a few months ago, but what did I have to lose? I sprayed my layers with the basting spray, and it didn’t shift a centimeter, even without pins. I may have a new favorite sewing accessory.

New Experiences: I have never seen a stage play before…Correction: had never. Never before Saturday. My favorite California aunt (as opposed to my favorite Texas aunt, and my favorite Oklahoma aunt, etc.) decided that was a situation that needed a remedy. And on Saturday, I got to see one of my favorite movies on stage – Singing in the Rain. It was an amazing production, and a day I’ll be savoring for quite a while. Something about seeing it all live…it’s so different from just watching a screen. So much more real – I suppose because it is real. The live orchestra playing the big band-era soundtrack was giving me chills before the actual show even started. And yes, I think it may have started an addiction.

Early Christmas Shopping: A store near us was having a major clearance sale in their toy section. Now I don’t know all the ins and outs of store management, so it seemed a little odd to me have clearance right now. Maybe for all the back-to-school stuff that has started arriving? (Yes, it’s only July…I don’t get it either.) It may seem a bit bizarre, but yes, my Mom and I started Christmas shopping in July. I’m not usually one of ‘those’ people – ‘those people’ meaning a person who plans well ahead. I’m more of a let’s-leave-it-all-till-December-so-we-can-panic-freely person. But if it means getting really awesome stuff at a discount price, I can learn to plan ahead. Now where to keep it for the next five months?!

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schneider

I read this right after Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac and that particular let-down had left me wary of trying another YA novel. But it was at my local library, it looked fairly interesting, and as I’m entrenched in this year’s summer reading program, I’m willing to read just about anything between covers. I think because I had prepared myself for another disappointment, I was really surprised by how much I enjoyed this one.

Golden boy, Ezra Faulkner loses everything in one night. Or so he thinks. Injured a car wreck, he can no longer play sports, which he thought was both his ticket to college, and the only way to maintain his social status. Now an outcast from the people he considered friends he finds himself drawn to a group of misfits on the debate team who accept him as one of them, and support him as he finally starts to grow up and become a decent human being. When a “new girl” shows up, Ezra is quickly drawn into her orbit. Cassidy is unlike any of the girls he’s ever dated, or even known for that matter – intelligent, genuine, and disinterested in social status.

Now the summary did not sound encouraging to me. I usually hate these kind of stories. Anything about cliques and social status is usually off my list. But it ended up being much more than I expected. So many YA novels’ messages boil down to ‘be who you want to be.’ This had a little bit of that, but I came away with something more than that: grow up! You’re not going to be in high school for the rest of your life, so grow up, be a man, and decide what you want from life!

The members of the debate team perfectly embody true friendship. Friendship means forgiving. It means being there, and supporting each other when no one else will. It means teamwork. Something Ezra had never experienced in all his self-centered relationships before his injury.

And Cassidy was very different from the typical female love-interest I’ve read. Yes, she’s beautiful and mysterious (why are love-interests always ‘mysterious’?) but her depth and intelligence made her incredibly enjoyable to read. I think she won me over with this discussion:

“There was this philosopher-slash-historian called Foucault, who wrote about how society is like this legendary prison called the panopticon. In the panopticon, you might be under constant observation, except you can never be sure whether someone is watching or not, so you wind up following the rules anyway.”
“But how do you know who’s a watcher and who’s a prisoner?” I asked.
“That’s the point. Even the watchers are prisoners.”

Something about this view of peer pressure and social status really struck me. And that was just the beginning. Now, I love poetry. Most poetry, anyway. And when Cassidy started quoting obscure poems, that I know and love, I knew it was going to be a fun book.

It was very well-written. The author has a way of taking little, seemingly meaningless happenings and making them beautiful. Every scene had a unique flavor of its own, and the small stuff that makes up life was so personally and vividly handled that I became very involved in the story. From debate competitions and fireworks, to sitting in a park’s playground structure or in a college’s lecture hall, even flash mobs (the dancing kind, not the riots) and geocaching, everything seemed like an adventure.

But it had a bittersweet ending. I couldn’t have been happier with Ezra’s ending. He became a man, at last. He grew up and took life by the horns. And that was what the whole book was building toward. But Cassidy’s character development wasn’t as encouraging. I think the author’s point was that people aren’t always how you imagine them. Cassidy’s ending fit her character, and brought more good points out of Ezra, but it was a bit sad to see the narcissism come out in a character I had liked so much, and to see Ezra have to admit it to himself and try to understand what she had become, even if he didn’t like it.

A personal message I came away with, reminded me of a conversation we’ve had in my family many times. God puts people in our lives when we need them. We may not need them for long, or they may be there for years. But sometimes friends disappear from our lives for one reason or another. But God gave them to us when we needed them, and that makes every friend special…even after they’re gone.

The only reason I can’t give this book 5 stars, or recommend it freely is that there was more innuendo and sex than I care for. The first chapter was the worst. Between the extreme self-absorption of the 'popular' characters and the crudeness of the sexual matters in the opening chapters it almost made me put the book away, and that never happens. Sex was handled callously and seemed a bit gratuitous, and it confused me, because it clashed very strangely with the rest of the book. So much of the book is beautiful settings, flowery prose and deep discussion about life. It just wasn’t right. But once you get through the first few chapters where the main character has no values to admire, things smooth out and begin improving.

But I enjoyed it so much that I’m planning on buying it, and going through it like my Mom did for us when we were kids, with a bottle of whiteout and/or a pair of scissors to excise the parts I most object to. Any of my friends who are interested in it are welcome to borrow my PG edit of a PG-13 novel.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

It took me a while to formulate my thoughts on this book, but I think I’ve finally settled my opinion. First, I have to say, this is not a book I would normally pick up, but because of all the accolades it has acquired over the last few years, I decided I should give it a fair shot. With so much hype, it had to be worth reading. I should’ve known better. I’ve learned that usually the more hype something gets the less I like it. I’m not sure why – maybe I’m just too contrary.

I know most people will disagree with this review, but I’ll try to be objective and respectful. If you liked this book, I am not in any way attacking you, just stating my own reading experience. I’ve never had cancer, or been very close to someone who has, so I can’t pretend to know how accurate that side of things is. Also, I am not an atheist, agnostic, or nihilist – I am a Christian and I cannot separate my worldview from my opinions on books. And just a warning – I can’t write this review spoiler-free, and there are spoilers. If you want to remain blissfully ignorant of any twists or surprises until you read it yourself, do not read this review. I'm afraid this one is a little bit lengthy, but I wanted to be sure to be fair and precise with my criticism.

             I can’t say I hated this book. But I can’t say I liked it a whole lot either. Generally, if I really like a book, I would read it again, and this one I don’t think I would. It was okay, at best. My feelings about the story itself are actually pretty much neutral. There were parts I enjoyed and things I liked about it, but the plot left me kind of shrugging my shoulders, and feeling like I could take it or leave it, and the overall book made me want to just ‘leave it.’
I think the reason it left me so flat is that if you just look at the plot, there’s not much to it. It all boils down to this (again, spoiler alert – TURN BACK NOW): two cancer-stricken teens meet, bond over a novel and shared experiences, fall in love, meet the novel’s author, find out he’s a jerk, one of them dies, and the other is dying. Now this simple of a plot line might have worked if the characters were meatier, but again, there’s not much to them. Both characters seem pretty shallow and thin.

Hazel, sixteen, has had terminal cancer since she was 13. She’s bright and witty, a bit narcissistic, but there’s not much to her other than her cancer. She quotes poetry and loves a certain novel yes, but other than that I never really felt like I knew her. Throughout the entire book she as a character is only defined by her cancer. She admits that she is “mostly a professional sick person.” She says she worries that when she dies “they’d have nothing to say about me except that I fought heroically, as if the only thing I’d ever done was Have Cancer.” I can’t say whether or not this really is what happens when a teen has been terminal for so many years. Maybe it is. But from a reader’s standpoint it was very sad to have a character so reduced.

Augustus wasn’t any better. He’s kind and supportive, but again I never felt like I knew anything about him before he met Hazel. His character’s essence was totally wrapped up in being Hazel’s boyfriend, finding the author of the novel they love so much, and Having Cancer. At seventeen, he has lost a leg to the cancer and seems to be cancer-free. But when it comes roaring back he dies a slow and painful death.

There were two things I did actually love about this book. The first, being their conversations. Some critics have ridiculed them, the most common argument being, “Teenagers don’t talk like that.” I beg to differ. Maybe it’s just my family and friends, but we have all sorts of debates and monologues running the gamut from theology and philosophy to properties of biological EMF fields and the nature of dimensionality. And yes, even dorky conversations like Hazel’s “why are scrambled eggs inherently breakfast food?” And people of all ages join in these discussions. So I was insulted by the remark “teenagers don’t talk like that.” Maybe some don’t, but not all of us are alike. We come from many different walks of life, and we all have different views. I happened to enjoy their discussions and philosophical debates, even if I didn’t really agree with most of them. Even the ones that seemed a bit pretentious I still found interesting, and at worst I laughed and moved on.

And the second was the picture of friendship John Green laid out between Hazel, Augustus, and Isaac, a secondary character. I love how anytime one of them is going through something, one or both of the others is right there for them. They’re not afraid to ask one of the others to come help them through a battle, and neither are they afraid to simply say, “I’m coming over.” It was a really good example of friendship and love in hard times.

But as if to make up for this wonderful friendship, Hazel’s relationship with her parents is sadly lacking. She puts distance between herself and them, fights with them, and says cutting things to her mother. Now I understand having a terminal disease would put a stress on a relationship, and that there might be tense times and arguments even. But in my mind, I would be clinging closer to anyone I loved and who loved me, seeking comfort. Even that though, wasn’t what bothered me most.

The hardest thing for me to get past was the worldview presented in this book. There is a constant spirit of hopelessness and nihilism. Nihilism, not in the sense of “there is no right or wrong,” but as my dictionary put it, “belief that nothing is worthwhile: a belief that life is pointless and human values are worthless.” Hazel presents this point of view fiercely, stating that, “Forever is an incorrect concept.” She makes it clear she doesn’t think there is an afterlife, even if she can’t say it absolutely. And towards the beginning, she has this cheery little monologue in response to Augustus’ fear of oblivion:

There will come a time…when all of us are dead. All of us. There will come a time when there are no human beings remaining to remember that anyone ever existed or that our species ever did anything. There will be no one left to remember Aristotle or Cleopatra, let alone you. Everything that we did and built and wrote and thought and discovered will be forgotten and all of this…will have been for naught. Maybe that time is coming soon and maybe it is millions of years away, but even we survive the collapse of our sun, we will not survive forever. There was time before organisms experienced consciousness, and there will be time after. And if the inevitability of human oblivion worries you, I encourage you to ignore it. God knows that’s what everyone else does.”

And this worldview pervades the entire book. Augustus is a little more optimistic, saying he believes in “capital-S Something” after life. Hazel’s father says he believes “the universe is improbably biased toward consciousness…And who am I, living in the middle of history, to tell the universe that it – or my observation of it – is temporary?”

At the end of the book one of the characters dies. I’d had it spoiled before I ever started this book, so I knew it was coming. It still made me cry, but not for the reason character deaths usually do. Where a character’s death often leaves me admiring a heroic act of self-sacrifice or mourning the tragedy of war or sickness, etc., this death seemed empty and like sheer emotional blackmail, the author’s attempt at making you accept a mediocre book as a great one. Green stuck the knife in and dug and dug, until I just wanted the death to be over already. I like character deaths. I think they can be used brilliantly. But this just came across as a useless, cheap trick.

It continued hopeless and empty till the very end. The only positive message I came away with was in Augustus’ letter at the close of the book. “Almost everyone is obsessed with leaving a mark upon the world…The marks humans leave are too often scars…People will says it’s sad that [Hazel] leaves a lesser scar…But it’s not sad…It’s triumphant. It’s heroic. Isn’t that the real heroism? Like the doctors say: First do no harm.”

Sometimes it’s better not to leave a mark, if that mark is a scar. Often the real heroes aren’t the great figures, the doers, and the fighters, but the ones that chose a quieter life, a small place, and put others first. In the end, that’s the most important mark we leave – how did we touch those around us? Not “what great thing did we do?” But “did we take care of loved ones? Did we leave scars? Or did we leave peace and sweet memories?”

I judge books by how they stick with me, as well as how it was while I was reading it. And this one just kept falling flatter and flatter the more I thought about it. TFIOS was a one-time read that I needed to complete just so I could know my opinion in a society that is rather obsessed with this story. It was a sweet story of friendship and love, with a depressing worldview. I can’t say I would reread this book. But neither do I regret reading it.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Manic Monday V

Rain!: Beautiful, beautiful rain. For two or three days now, lovely storms have been coming north up the coast and dumping much needed rain on us. It hadn’t even made a dent in the drought, but still, it’s a start, and a very encouraging one at that. Rain is something to be thankful for in itself, but it brings so many other blessings with it, from not having to water the garden, to watching the little ones playing in rain puddles after church.

False Starts and True Ones: I think I may have committed a Narnia no-no. As I wrote about earlier, each year Carrie at Reading to Know hosts a Narnia reading challenge. I decided to read the series start to finish, and I started with book one. Book one being The Magician’s Nephew. Well, at least I tried to start with book one…three times. The third time was not the charm. After that I changed tacks, and started reading them in the order Lewis published them, starting with The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. That made all the difference in the world. I am now fully immersed in Narnia, and hopefully sticking to this reading plan will pan out nicely. Unfortunately, I lost time with my false starts so I may not finish the entire series this month as I was hoping to. But I think the point of this challenge is to encourage us to read something that might otherwise have hung chronically around the middle of our to-read lists. And I will finish it, even if it goes a bit into August. But really, where are you supposed to start?!

Pinterest: I love Pinterest. I may in fact be slightly addicted to it. But only recently have I discovered some of its more practical uses, and at the top of that list is planning things. If I’m expected to do something, I need a plan. I am not spontaneous, I’m not even sure what ‘flying by the seat of your pants means,’ but it sounds terrifying. And suddenly I’ve noticed all the resource Pinterest has for planning, whether it’s costumes, meals, or events. Perfect for a chronic planner like me.

Cooking Victories: Speaking of meals, that has become one of my biggest goals for the year – to cook more. I am not a bad cook, just an unwilling one. I love to bake, but for some reason cooking is at the very bottom of the list of things I enjoy doing. But every time I have a small victory and cook something particularly yummy, it gives me a little extra boost that makes it easier to cook next time. What about you? Have you found any resources for meal planning that are particularly helpful and that you could recommend?

Pumpkin Starts: I finally got a nice little patch cleared for my pumpkins. I decided on two varieties – a large one, intended for display pumpkins and jack o lanterns, and a tiny one that may very well make excellent pie pumpkins…we shall see. And perhaps later in the year there will be pictures…if I don’t murder them first.

A Much-Anticipated Novel: I read To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time at the beginning of the year and fell instantly in love. Two days after I finished reading it, and while I was still savoring it and nursing a bad case of ‘book hangover’, I found out about the long-forgotten, recently unearthed sequel, Go Set a Watchman. I sent in my preorder within days. And last week it arrived. I can’t believe I’m doing this to myself, but I am refusing to read it yet. Instead it is sitting innocently taunting me from its place on my shelf. No, I’m not a masochist, and no, I’m not doing penance for some horrible sin. I am using it as a self-bribe, my incentive for finishing The Chronicles of Narnia, whether I finish it late or not. In the meantime, I am totally isolating myself from any reviews, opinions, people who have read it, and practically the world at large to avoid spoilers.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Midnight in Austenland by Shannon Hale

Having read Austenland a good four or five times and loved it, I was hesitant to read the sequel. The sequel is never as good as the original, right? But during this year’s Summer Reading Program at my local library, I’m reading pretty much anything and everything, especially stuff I’ve been putting off or have been nervous about for one reason or another. And this read definitely paid off.

We return to Pembrook Park, and run into some of the same characters – Mrs. Wattlesbrook, Colonel Andrews, Miss Charming, and Sir John. But there are plenty of new characters to keep you interested, and the plot is completely new, fresh, and interesting. I was afraid this was simply going to be Austenland repackaged – you know, the same set-up, the same run-ins and climaxes. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

While Austenland was a straight up “romcom,” this had so much more going on. Things have gone wrong in the Pembrook empire. But why? Why have Pembrook Park’s sister estates closed? And are all the guests what they seem? Recently divorced Charlotte Kinder, was aiming for a peaceful vacation all her own. Instead she drops into the middle of a dark drama she wasn’t expecting – maybe even a potential murder. The only problem? There’s no victim. As she tries to sort out reality from the game that is Austenland, she becomes more confused, even doubting her own senses.

I was surprised to find that I ended up enjoying this one even more than Austenland. It was a longer book, covering a shorter amount of time, and felt much less rushed. The plot was much meatier (although I’ve always loved mysteries, so I might be prejudiced) and drew me in immediately. The characters were fleshed out better, and there was even more backstory for the characters from the first book. And the romance, in my opinion, was less cliché and more natural…but that could be argued. I liked it better.

I’m hesitant to say too much. I don’t want to give anything away, but the plot was dark and twisty, with scenes of action that kept everything really gripping. It had me up past 1am, one night. Like Austenland, there was no cursing, some innuendo, and quite a bit of kissing, but nothing graphic. And best of all, it was just as funny. In spite of the darkness, Shannon Hale managed to keep things light whenever possible, and I found myself chuckling throughout. It had a tidy ending, but not quite as ridiculously dramatic as Austenland’s. I found this ending more plausible.

If you like mysteries in period-settings (granted, this is a modern-day imitation of a period setting), that don’t get too heavy and have just a smattering of romance, this book is definitely worth a try. You’ll get the most out of it if you’ve read Austenland, but I liked it even better. If you hated Austenland, don’t bother, because it’s written in the same voice, with a similar self-proclaimed-damaged-goods heroine. That said, Charlotte is very different from Jane, and I found her more confident, steady, and enjoyable to read. And by the end, she had grown much more than I felt Jane did.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Austenland by Shannon Hale

Now, I don’t usually read straight-up romances. There usually has to be something else going on. Usually. This book is an exception, and I think only because of the setting and the comedy. This was the third or fourth time I’ve read this book, and I think it’s time I just buy it. The last time I read it was three or four years ago, and I have to admit, the way I read it was different this time, but it was still one I enjoyed. Here’s the cover description:

Jane Hayes is a seemingly normal young New Yorker, but she has a secret. Her obsession with Mr. Darcy, as played by Colin Firth in the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, is ruining her life. No real man can compare.

When a wealthy relative bequeaths her a trip to an English resort catering to Austen-crazed women, Jane’s fantasies of meeting the perfect Regency-era gentleman suddenly become realer than she ever could have imagined. Decked out in empire-waist gowns, stripped of her modern appliances, Jane throws herself into mastering Regency etiquette and flirts with gardeners and gentlemen – or maybe even, she suspects, with the actors who are playing them.

It’s all a game, Jane knows. And yet the longer she stays, the more her insecurities seem to vanish. Is she about to kick the Austen obsession for good, or could all her dreams actually culminate in a Mr. Darcy of her own?

Before I launch into this review, I have a request. Please, please do not judge this book by its movie. Simply watching a two-minute trailer, I saw so many drastic changes from the book, completely altering the spirit of the story and the main character, that I got rather upset, and decided not to watch it.

The best thing about this book is how downright, laugh-out-loud funny it is. The first time I read it, I thought it was just wonderful. So original, and romantic, and funny, and a main character I could identify with. Some of my opinions have changed, but I stand by funny. It is not a drama – it is a straight-up romantic comedy. You cannot go into this book taking it seriously, because it is not meant to be taken seriously. Shannon Hale writes in such a snarky, chatty tone, that I chuckle all throughout.

I do think now though, that the romance side of things was pretty cliché. I’ve read more Austen and Bronte than I had before, and I understand that it makes sense to have an Austen-style romance in a book like this, but…well, I prefer something a little more original. The climax was so. very. dramatic. that it was just plain unrealistic, and borderline laughable. But again, since the whole book is a comedy, it doesn't really bother me much.

The characters are diverse and well differentiated. Jane can be a tiny bit obnoxious at times…well, may be more than a tiny bit, but the point of the story is her personal growth out of an adolescent obsession. And the fact that she knows she’s ridiculous helps a lot.

The task of sorting out fantasy from reality is difficult, but I think that’s the point. Fantasy, over-indulged, is dangerous. As Jane herself says, “Fantasy is not practice for what is real – fantasy is the opiate of women.” And the modern-day imitation of a Regency setting was an interesting twist, and very well executed. A few of the evening conversations in the drawing room reminded me of some of my favorite scenes from Jane Eyre. The Austen-style settings are what initially drew me in.

As far as adult content, there’s no cursing, but there is some physical romance – nothing at all graphic though. And there tend to be some subtle innuendoes, that really are more funny than offensive.

Even though my opinion altered some, I still enjoyed it, and intend to buy it. It is simple, sweet, comical, and very fun. I went straight from this book to its sequel Midnight in Austenland which I had never read before, (review to come) and I have to say, Midnight was much better, and it is worth it to read this book, just to get to that one.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Manic Monday IV

My list this week may be a bit shorter, not because it was a hard week and I can’t find anything to be thankful for, but because it was a nice quiet week and that is my first item.

A Quiet Week: There was very little going on this week until the weekend, and yet somehow it still managed to fly by in a blur. Even the quiet weeks can’t really be called slow weeks any longer. They all seem to fill themselves up with plenty to do.

Friends’ Pregnancies: Many of my friends all over the country are pregnant right now, several of them in my church or in the immediate area. I couldn’t be happier for all of them as they grow their families, but partly my excitement is selfish. Having no babies of my own yet, I randomly abscond with other people’s and adopt them for an hour or two or as long as the parents will let me. More babies mean more opportunities for me to ‘steal’ one.

Lovely, Lovely Weather: June Gloom returned with a vengeance this month, and I have to admit, it was really starting to get to me. Some people say the weather doesn’t affect mood. I don’t know whether I agree with this or not, but if it’s true than I just have a bad attitude when it’s so cloudy every day, and it’s an area I really need to work on. But when the sun finally comes, I think it feels warmer and shines brighter than it does when I’m just taking it for granted. People, it is not, I repeat, it is NOT always sunny in California.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place by Julie Berry

After suffering at the hands of Life of Pi, I really needed something light, fluffy, and escapist to cheer me up. This was exactly that and more. It was comical, sweet, and just plain interesting. The cover description explains it better than I ever could.

The students of St. Etheldreda’s School of Young Ladies face a bothersome dilemma. Their irascible headmistress, Mrs. Plackett, and her surly brother, Mr. Godding, have been most inconveniently poisoned at Sunday dinner. Now the school will almost certainly be closed and the girls sent home – unless these seven very proper young ladies can hide the murders and convince their neighbors that nothing is wrong.

Burying two corpses in the garden, faking their way through a surprise birthday party, and muddling through the horrors of Victorian housework unsupervised are easy enough. But getting to the bottom of the mysterious goings on at Prickwillow Road is another thing altogether.

Why were Mrs. Placket and her brother carrying antique coins in their pockets? Who was cooing in the garden the night they died? And how can the girls be sure that the killer won’t strike again?

I love boarding school stories. I don’t know why, but a boarding school is one of my favorite settings for a story. The only problem with boarding school stories is quite often it gets into cliques, and popular girls versus average girls. This, thankfully, did not. Add to the boarding school setting, the fact that this is also set in England, 1890, and you have my interest.

It might sound strange at first, seven young ladies hiding the body of their murdered headmistress. But as strange as it is, it’s also kind of sweet in a sad way. The seven girls at the school are truly sisters. They come from a variety of backgrounds and families, but the one thing they have in common is that not one of them has a blood sister, and not one of them is willing to break up their ‘family.’ Instead they agree to do it whatever it takes to stay together. Each girl has a unique personality, her own strengths and weaknesses, and fills a particular role in their merry band. And even the knowledge that any one of them could be the murderer does not tear them apart.

The entire story reminded me of the old black-and-white screwball comedies, specifically Arsenic and Old Lace, one of my favorites. The black comedy as the girls try so desperately to conceal the deaths is horrifically hilarious. The tension of their almost being discovered many times kept me on the edge of my seat. And most importantly the end was perfect, even though I had it pretty much figured out by that point…pretty much. Not completely. And that’s all I ask for.

At times it was a bit hard to keep track of all the characters, the girls especially. But that became easier as I continued reading. It took me a little while to get caught up in the story, but by the time I was a quarter of the way in I couldn’t put it down. It is completely free of cursing, and though one of the girls is a bit of a flirt and all the girls have young men they admire, there is no true innuendo and the romance is very understated. The most offensive thing in the entire story is that the next-door farmer’s name is Butts – something that could cause younger children to snicker. And the reason the girls are called ‘scandalous’ is not because of any matter of vice or virtue, but because they know if they are caught there will be a terrible scandal.

After reading the book, I came across a ‘book trailer,’ a phenomenon I’m still not used to, but enjoy most the time. I have to say, I like this trailer, and I feel like it gives you a good taste of the plot and characters, and that’s why I’m sharing it, but it’s not totally accurate. The book isn’t so broodingly dark as the trailer comes across. Actually the book is surprisingly light and uplifting. It feels more like The Mysterious Benedict Society or the movie “Nanny McPhee,” while the trailer feels more like a John Bellairs horror story or The Series of Unfortunate Events.

It’s probably too much to ask, but I would very much like to see a sequel to this story. It was left open enough that it could definitely happen, if not with these girls, with a new generation – perhaps their daughters? If it could be as much of a page-turner as this one, I’m totally on board.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

I can’t believe I’m actually saying this… The movie was better than the book. Now, usually when I say that, it’s because the movie has taken a very bizarre piece of writing and turned it into something palatable. This time is no different. I would watch the movie again. I still haven’t decided whether I would read this book again.

I’ve been thinking over my feelings about this book for a while, and it’s still hard for me to understand why it makes me as uncomfortable as it does. So much of it was good. Some of it was even great. So why did it leave me feeling confused, discouraged, and strangely sullied? Life of Pi is critically acclaimed, award winning, and New York Times best-selling. All of this should have warned me. Usually ‘critically-acclaimed’ is code for ‘overrated’.

The ‘back-of-the-book’ description explains it best.

Pi Patel, a God-loving boy and the son of a zookeeper, has a fervent love of stories and practices not only his native Hinduism, but also Christianity and Islam. When Pi is sixteen, his family and their zoo animals emigrate from Indie to North America aboard a Japanese cargo ship. Alas, the ship sinks – and Pi finds himself in a lifeboat, his only companions a hyena, an orangutan, a wounded zebra, and a 450-pound Bengal tiger. Soon the tiger has dispatched all but Pi. Can Pi and the tiger find their way to land? Can Pi’s fear, knowledge, and cunning keep him alive until they do.

The survival story itself was very good, if you like that kind of thing. I do. It is all written in narrative, as Pi telling the story to a novelist researching for a new story. I can see how some people might feel that it drags on, and if you’re not into ‘survival on the high seas’ type stories, this is probably not the booksfor you. But that wasn’t what bothered me.

I don’t know why I didn’t see it coming, but what finally got to me was the quasi-religious mumbo-jumbo. In the movie (which I watched first, incidentally) it was more understated. For once I’m thankful for Hollywood’s ten-foot-pole policy when it comes to matters of faith. Pi’s bizarre worldview is such a strange mixture of innocence, naiveté, and humanism that I choked on it pretty quickly. But I kept on reading, telling myself that by the time he was stranded in the lifeboat, there wouldn’t be much time for that stuff. I was wrong.

This book has a bit of a twist at the end (also at the end of the movie), that I won’t spoil, but it makes the entire book a matter of interpretation. The entire book revolves around the question, “What do you choose to believe?” I think because of that, different people will come away with different interpretations and different impressions. It wouldn’t have hit me so badly if it wasn’t for one line at the very end, comparing the truth you choose to believe with God. Or quoted verbatim, “And so it goes with God.”

Some people came away with an optimistic view, saying it shows that people want to believe in light and good and beauty, even if it requires a leap of faith. “And so it goes with God.” We believe in God because He is light and good and beauty.

Unfortunately, I came away with a different message. The message I saw was that we should choose “the better story” whether it is truth or not, and that God is just “the better story.” Call me old-fashioned or prudish, but I’d rather have the true truth. Don’t get me wrong, I love stories and fables and allegories, but I don’t choose to believe them as truth. I would rather not “exchange the truth of God for the lie.” (Rom. 1:25.)

But which way you see it, will depend on how you answer the pivotal question at the end of the book. I can only explain how my answer affected the way the story left me. And afterward, I thought very hard about it and I realized that if you came to a different answer than I did, “And so it goes with God,” could have a much different – better – meaning. It wasn’t even the particular answer I came to that bothered me, but the comparison of God to a variable truth. I suppose, coming from a character that is a Catholic-Muslim-Hindu, I should have expected trumped-up views of God. But it still bothered me.

Aside from all that, also be warned that it is extremely violent and gory toward the end. Some very ugly parts of humanity are dealt with and described in great detail. It could definitely be disturbing for some readers.

So I don’t sound only negative, many parts of the books were quite enjoyable. Pi’s view of zoos was detailed, authoritative, and refreshing. Let’s put it this way, he most certainly does NOT think all animals are better off left in the wild, or that zoos are cruel constructs of a cruel society. Pi is actually a very sweet, innocent, gentle-hearted character, and his narrative voice is very comfortable reading – like listening to an old friend telling you a story. There was even a quote that made me laugh out loud.

I have nothing to say of my working life, only that a tie is a noose, and inverted though it is, it will hang a man nonetheless if he’s not careful.

I will certainly watch the movie again. And I may even read the book again when I’m older and hopefully wiser, to reevaluate my impressions about it. What about you? Have you read it? What was your answer at the end?

Monday, July 6, 2015

Manic Monday III

Happy Belated 4th of July everybody! Hope you all enjoyed your weekend. What better holiday than one that celebrates freedom AND gives you an excuse to blow stuff up?

America: As badly as our country has failed at so many things, and even as things appear to go downhill even farther, I am still thankful for this land. I was born here, and I can’t imagine living anywhere else. Our forefathers gave us an amazing gift in this nation, and the price was their blood. Too often I take it for granted.

Homegrown Produce: Over the weekend, a large bowl of tomatoes from my garden, and a couple of cucumbers turned into my favorite fresh summer treat – Marinated Greek Salad. I’m sure there’s another name for it. Chopped tomato and cucumber in oil and vinegar with a generous amount of feta cheese and a bit of seasoning…best summer food ever.

Family Time: Nephews #2 and #3, and I have started a tradition. Each Sunday afternoon after lunch, we each take turns picking a game to play, one game each week… Well… Sometimes two. Our family have always been game-players – card games, board games, dice games…just about everything. The new generation is no different. They are excellent game-players, good sports, and are always willing to learn something new.

 Fall Produce Starts:  I thought I had gone too long to think about doing pumpkins this year. When I had charted it out on my calendar, I had it in my mind that I needed to plant my pumpkins in early June. Maybe that’s true, but our local garden center has beautiful pumpkin starts, at about the stage of growth mine would be, had I planted in June. Granted, I still need to get my patch of ground ready, but it’s nice to know I still have a chance at homegrown pumpkins.

How about you all? What did you do for the holiday weekend?

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac by Gabrielle Zevin

The concept of this story was something that has intrigued me for a long time. It was an idea that I always wanted to play around with and maybe work up into a short story, but never got around to it. When I came across this book, it seemed like I was about to read everything I imagined it could be.

The idea of a person losing years of their memory, forgetting their friends, their connections and interests, even their family and their own recent life-details is really poignant to me. That’s when you would learn who your true friends are and how much people really care. There’s so much material and an amazing potential for characterization. The labor of reclaiming your life and trying to figure out who you are or were… Well, there’s just a lot to work with.

But unfortunately, this book fell extremely short of the mark. On the surface, it appears to have done everything I wanted. Re-befriending your old friends, adjusting to the changes in your family, rediscovering self, figuring out who you are and who you want to be – it was all there. There’s just one flaw. This was one of the shallowest books I’ve ever read.

Less than one chapter in, I knew I was in for a rocky ride. Naomi, a 17-year-old girl, has just been taken to the hospital in an ambulance, and is waiting for her father. The young man who called the ambulance is waiting with her, and she asks him if he is her boyfriend. He hesitates and then tells her he is not. A few moments later, she asks him why he had hesitated. His reply? “I was wondering if I could get away with letting you think I was your boyfriend…I also wondered if it would be wrong to kiss you – not on the mouth, maybe on your forehead or hand – while I had the chance, while you were still thinking you were mine.” And then he tells her how wrong he decided that would be. Thank heaven for small miracles.

This really creeped me out. Especially considering that it can’t even be explained away by a secret crush or hidden feelings on his part. To even think about taking advantage of a girl in such a vulnerable position that way, is repulsive. Something that an antagonist or villain should do. But this was a character you’re supposed to like. Yes, it turns out he’s unstable, but it just wasn’t an encouraging way to start out the book.

And my problems with it continued. Naomi is continually manipulating and deceiving her father, cold-shouldering her mother, and even calling her names. She is selfish, self-absorbed, foul-mouthed, disrespectful, and just generally foolish. Even cutting her slack, for having just gone through major trauma, she was not my idea of a sympathetic character. And in the course of this novel, she went through boys so quickly I was in danger of whiplash. No sooner does she break up with one than she’s falling deeply and passionately in “it’s-different-this-time” love. One was a jock, one a brooding emo, and the third an endearing nerd. And only one of them earned any of my respect.

That, coupled with the foul language and the cliché broken-home family setting made the book a bit of a drag. Really, the only reason I finished it was because it absolutely kills me to start a story and not finish it. I feel pretty much any book deserves the chance to redeem itself by the end. The best things I can say about it, are that it was a fast read; Naomi’s father was a sweet character; the unbalanced emo was certainly…unbalanced – well-written if that’s the sort of thing you like; and Naomi’s best friend Ace was incredibly patient and sweet. Overall though? Not one I would reread and definitely not one I would recommend without several cautions. Books like this are the reason I started avoiding YA fiction.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Chronicles of Narnia Reading Challenge 2015

Each year, Carrie over at Reading to Know hosts a month-long Chronicles of Narnia Reading Challenge. The rules are simple and generous: read any Narnia books or books about Narnia or C.S. Lewis that you like. The arrival of this challenge resurrected some old feelings of guilt in me, as I haven’t read The Chronicles of Narnia, since I was 9 years old and sick with the flu for a month – they became my best friends then. I also have never read anything about Narnia, or anything else by C.S. Lewis. Maybe this month will be chance to remedy that.

At the very least, I hope to read The Chronicles of Narnia “series proper.” We’ll see what I get to after that. This might also serve as my excuse to collect the series in a nicer edition, than my old paperback treasury edition…not that I ever wait for a legitimate excuse to buy books. So hopefully over the next month there should be a handful of Narnia reviews. I may even watch The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, the only one of the movies I actually enjoy.

What are the rest of you reading this month?